“He used to play the old melodeon and the fiddle in the old days and he used to cater for all sorts of hooleys and American Wakes and the fair at Spancil Hill and he went to America…”
“Robbie McMahon, traditional singer and storyteller, on Michael Considine.”
Michael Considine was born at home in Spancil Hill near the coast of County Clare around 1850. As the quote above indicates he was born into a community and a wider society where the live arts of music, songs, and storytelling played an active and central role at everything from cattle fairs to funerals. By the time he was in is early teens, or even younger, Michael would have been participating in informal communal artistic events – what we call ‘sessions’ on a weekly and even a nightly basis. At fairs and funerals there was (and is) also a culture of sessions and sing-sings held in neighbours’ houses in the region & good performers would have been in constant demand.
At these sessions Michael would have played and recited mostly traditional works, putting his own spin on them as all skilled traditional performers do, according to their own inclinations and to the exigencies of the particular occasion. There are as many versions of Irish traditional works as there are people performing them – continuity alongside continuous, often on-the-hoof innovation is the elixir that explains the long life and endless vitality of the Irish Traditional Arts – in our own day they are as overflowing with genius and enthusiasm as they have ever been.
Given the rare handling of metre, rhythm and versification shown by Michael Considine in Spancil Hill, it can be assumed that he knew hundreds of traditional poems and ballads and that he must also have composed a number of his own that died with him. Such prolific artistry may have made Michael Considine exceptional in most places, but in the Clare of 1860 it was no big deal – every house in every village had a share of artists-in-residence, labouring by day and performing by night. Even today, rural Clare remains the centre of the universe of traditional arts in Ireland. It is in large part due to the dogged determination of Clare people and their undying love of the culture of their ancestors that so much of the corpus of traditional song, dance, tune & story survived the genocides of the 16th & 19th centuries, and the near-annihilation of the working people of rural Ireland by first British & then Free State policy leading to mass starvation, poverty, emigration, depopulation and, in much of the midlands of Ireland especially, deculturalization.
Michael emigrated to the USA from Spancil Hill around 1870, following his brother John and his sister Mary. These were hard times. Perhaps there have never been harder in Clare. Disease was rampant. Death was everywhere. The great depopulation of what in better times was a teeming, thriving Irish countryside, & the concurrent demise of Irish as a national language were in full swing. As many were dying young as were emigrating. Shortly before Michael emigrated, his brother William(jnr) died. Brother John died shortly after Michael’s arrival in the US. Another brother Pat had died some years earlier, leaving his widow to look after her father-in-law William and a five month old son called John. The relentless and merciless nature of death was all too obvious to Michael Considine – he was truly besieged by death. That is perhaps the reason he made such a strong and long-lasting counter-attack on it in his death-defying poetry.
In the US, Michael worked in Boston for about two years, with the intention, says the lore, of bringing his sweetheart over and for them to be married when he had made enough money for the passage. It was not to be. The identity of the sweetheart is a mystery.
The girl, (or woman?) in the poem, like all the other characters, is simultaneously a literal and a symbolic figure. She stands not for herself but for unrealised love in general. She is the love that is lost due to poverty, exile, oppression. But also the love that is perfect because it is unrealised and had never been given a chance to spoil. Literature is full of this kind of love. Sonnet writers are particularly fond of it; Dante, Petrarch, Shakespeare all wrote entire books of sonnets dedicated to an ideal lover, who may have been based on a real person but whose elucidation in poetry exceeded all human possibilities. It’s very likely that Michael Considine received at least a basic education in ancient and medieval literature and would have been familiar with the work of the above poets and the intensely moving way in which they wrote about love – in which not only the poet’s love but also the loss they feel at unrealised or unrealisable love is something beyond compare:
“O you who on the way
of Love go by,
listen and see
if there is any grief,
as grave as mine:
and I beg you only
to suffer me to be heard,
and then reflect
whether I am not the tower
and the key of every torment.”
(From New Life, by Dante, trs A.S Kline)
In Spancil Hill we have a poem which manages to be simultaneously about the vision of ideal love and its irretrievable loss:
I paid a flying visit to my first and only love
She’s as white as any lily and as gentle as a dove
She threw her arms around me saying “Johnny I love you still”
Oh she’s Ned the farmers daughter and the flower of Spancil HiII
I dreamt I held and kissed her as in the days of yore
She said, “Johnny you’re only joking like many’s the time before”
The cock he crew in the morning he crew both loud and shrill
And I awoke in California, many miles from Spancil Hill.
This double hit on the emotions – the verses at once ecstatically joyous and inconsolably sad, accounts for much of the powerful impact of Spancil Hill. The true love declares her true love at the exact point the true love becomes unrealisable – becomes a lie or at least only a shadow of a true love. A wrenching, heart-splitting scenario that pops up again in Jimmy McCarthy’s Ride On: I “could never go with you no matter how I wanted to.”
The loving and the not being able to love, the going-away and the not being able to go-with. This paralytic affliction was something perhaps general among those countless people who had, by force of poverty and oppression, to abandon all the naive, poetic dreams & desires of their youth as they scattered to the wind during the great & terrifying depopulation that took place in Ireland for more than a century after the beginning of the famine. The involuntary migrant is doomed to a dual existence and to never be able to fully live in either one – the exiled life they are really living, and the home life they but for cruel fate should have been living. Spancil speaks this general experience of being torn in two by forced exile – the love we can neither consummate nor ever get its most communicable symbolic expression. In the end tho, it’s hard to know whether Michael Considine had a real sweetheart, or whether he just needed one for the sake of the poem. With poets you can never tell.
In 1872 Michael moved from Boston to California, where he fell fatally ill, composing the poem Spancil Hill as he lay dying. None of the sources say how he died. As it seems too have been a chronic condition, our best guess is TB. But who knows – it’s likely Michael’s immune system was severely weakened by the famine years back home, and there are many diseases he could have picked up on the ship to Boston, in the slums of Boston, in a crowded, unhygienic work environment, perhaps….
John Considine (jr) was six years old when he received the poem Spancil Hill, wrapped up in a last letter home, from his uncle Michael, in the year 1873. He kept it safe & locked away, like one might any such touching keepsake of a relative who has been called home to God, and that it is where it would have stayed, permanently buried away from the world like it’s author, were it not for the quick-thinking of a Clare woman many decades later…